Friday, July 13, 2012

Bar Innovations Continue to Confuse Regulators

The nation's government liquor authorities, still mired in a swamp of obsolete, Prohibition-era regulations, continue to bedevil, and be bedeviled by, the lightning pace of the innovations in the cocktail community. Seems every six months or so you read about some benighted health inspector wandering into a high end cocktail lounge and being shocked that drinks are being made with egg whites, or that bartenders are infusing spirits with various herbs and spices and fruits. They shut the programs down, forcing the bar owners to wage expensive and time-consuming campaigns to reinstate what are essentially safe and sensible practices.

Last week, it happened again, and the new East Village bar Gin Palace was the victim. The bar, which focuses on gin drinks, trumpeted its draft cocktail program in the press. It would serve Gin & Tonics and Ramos Gin Fizzes on tap. To the drink world, this was not new news. Draft cocktails have been on offer at saloons on both coasts for more than a year now, following in the footsteps of the draft wine trend. In fact, Gin Palace owner Ravi DeRossi has actually featured draft drinks at two of his previous bars. But it was Gin Palace that set the authorities off, mainly because it received so much pre-opening ink.

So now Gin Palace has to argue its case before a hearing. If the bar succeeds, as it should, a lot of other bars with draft programs should be grateful. Here's the item I wrote for the Times' Diner's Journal:

Gin Palace Says State Turned Off the Tap on Its Cocktails 
When the cocktail bar Gin Palace opened recently in the East Village, the headline-grabber of its juniper-heavy drinks agenda was the cocktails-on-tap program. The bar promised draft specimens of classics like gin and tonic and the Ramos gin fizz.
On Monday night, though, the New York State Liquor Authority turned off those taps, declaring the free-flowing refreshments illegal, according to the bar’s owner, Ravi DeRossi.
Asked about the action, a liquor authority spokesman, Bill Crowley, said only this in an e-mail: “No charges were brought against the place you asked me about. If we are investigating a matter, we cannot comment.”
Mr. DeRossi, who also a co-owner of such well-known watering holes as Death & Co. and Mayahuel, said, “I think what we’re doing is not illegal.”
He said he believed that the liquor authority’s action was rooted in a Prohibition-era law that forbids a bar from taking alcohol from a bottle, pouring it into another and serving it. The rule was created to protect consumers against unscrupulous tavern keepers who might be adulterating their liquor. “But in 1989, they changed the law,” Mr. DeRossi said. “People wanted to serve frozen margaritas.” The rule was amended to allow for the use of a “machine” that holds an alcoholic mix of more than one gallon, and is in “continuous motion.”
Mr. DeRossi plans to fight the ruling at a July 20 hearing, contending that Gin Palace’s cocktails on tap fall under the same legal definition that protects those frosty margaritas. (Only the tapped gin and tonics have been on offer since the bar opened up.)
“The law does not stipulate that the motion is provided by any sort of blade or mechanical means,” Gin Palace’s beverage director, Frank Cisneros, wrote in an e-mail, “nor does it qualify what a ‘machine’ even is.” He added that “if we can prove that there is ‘continuous motion’ through Brownian motion (gas within liquid) and that a tap system qualifies as a machine, we’re in the clear.”
If Mr. DeRossi prevails, his efforts will extend protection to the many other bars in New York City that offer draft cocktails — none of whom have been stopped by state officials. “They told us they were choosing us because we got the most press,” Mr. DeRossi said. “There are 30 other bars that are doing cocktails on tap. But no one’s getting as much attention for it.”
Gin Palace remains open in the meantime, serving all the other nondraft, gin-based cocktails on their menu.

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